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Ugly, Paranoid, Divisive Politics: The GOP Are All Know-Nothings Now

David Brat's victory over Eric Cantor represents the triumphant return of an awful GOP strain best left to history.

Tea Party-backed economics professor David Brat, shown April 26, 2014 in Glen Allen, Virginia, defeated incumbent House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in the June 10 primary.
Photo Credit: AFP


Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s stunning primary defeat to political unknown David Brat sent shock waves through the political world on Tuesday, and nobody seems certain of how or where it will all end. But we can say something about where it began: the 1850s. That’s when the Republican Party emerged from the collapse of the Whigs. But it was not alone. Another party emerged alongside it in the 1850s — the conspiracy-minded anti-immigrant/anti-Catholic American Party, also known as the “Know-Nothings,” which initially overshadowed the Republicans — winning 52 House seats in 1854 to 13 for the Republicans — but quickly faded from sight. Martin Scorsese’s “Gangs of New York” is a fictionalized account of the actual ground-level conflicts out of which the Know-Nothings arose. Daniel Day Lewis’s character, Bill the Butcher, was based on an actual Know-Nothing leader, William Poole — a Joe the Plumber type with homicidal tendencies. Now, Cantor’s out-of-the-blue defeat is the clearest signal yet that the Know-Nothings and their bleak vision are back, full force. Ultimately, they didn’t have to knock off the Republicans; they’ve simply taken them over from within.

The Know-Nothings began as a grassroots, anti-immigrant/anti-Catholic movement based in local lodges. When asked about their activities, members were sworn to say “I know nothing” — hence the name. But the willingness to embrace ignorance also reflected something broader about them: a focus on their own self-defined cultural values, and a disdain for learning anything outside the sphere of what they already “knew.” This is what the term “know-nothing” has come to signify ever since, and though it gets the exact letter of its origins wrong, it captures their spirit precisely.

The most obvious tip-off that the Know-Nothings are back is the salience of immigration in Cantor’s upset. Although immigration wasn’t everything, as early stories took it to be, it did play a crucial role in mobilizing activist support, shaping the campaign narrative, and highlighting how Cantor’s careerist ambitions clashed with the sentiments of his political base. Still, the most important way immigration figures into this story is in terms of the party’s future, not Cantor’s past: it further derails the GOP’s efforts to escape from the consequences of feeding their own paranoid, xenophobic base, lo these many decades. That base is what’s transformed the Republicans into Know-Nothings right before our very eyes — but it was politicians like Cantor (like Bush, Gingrich, Reagan and Nixon before him) who manipulated the base to that point in the first place.

It’s important to point out that  PPP’s poll on immigration attitudes in Cantor’s district does not refute the role that immigration played in this race. PPP asked about specifically described legislation, and found broad support by a substantial margin — but that’s not at all the way in which immigration is discussed among Republicans generally, and in the Cantor/Brat primary in particular, where the rhetorical flavor is much more reminiscent of the Know-Nothing movement, as  Wikipedia describes:

It promised to purify American politics by limiting or ending the influence of Irish Catholics and other immigrants, thus reflecting nativism and anti-Catholic sentiment. It was empowered by popular fears that the country was being overwhelmed by German and Irish Catholic immigrants, whom they saw as hostile to republican values and controlled by the Pope in Rome.

The objects of demonization have changed, but today’s anti-immigration rhetoric, and its embedding in the broader rhetoric of “taking our country back,” along with various means of voter suppression to limit the influence of cultural others is virtually identical to what the Know-Nothings were up to, but bears no resemblance at all to the Republicans of that same time.

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